The Rise of Media in Democratic Afghanistan

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Tooba Ahmadyar ,17, uses her computer at the Young Women For Change internet cafe, Afghanistan's first women-only net cafe, in Kabul. July 22, 2012

Afghans continue to wait as ballots are counted in the country’s first free elections, which took place on April 5. And as the country’s citizens search for information on the election results, chances are they’re heading to the many television networks, radio stations and websites run by Afghani media mogul Saad Mohseni.

Mohseni is the chairman and chief executive of Moby Group, the foremost media company in Afghanistan. Headquartered in Kabul, the company runs broadcast networks such as Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s most watched TV station, and Arman FM, one of the country’s most popular radio stations.

With Afghanistan on the brink of a new political administration, which Mosheni cites as perhaps its most important transition yet, the country also rests on the cusp of an even greater transition insofar as media is concerned. As the country faces obstacles through its growth after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, media has become increasingly important in people’s lives.

“In a place like Afghanistan you need to understand what’s going on because it impacts your life,” Mohseni says. “Even on a day-to-day basis, you need to find out if there was an attack because your kids are going to school or your wife works in a different part of the city.”

Under the Taliban, most forms of media were effectively banned in Afghanistan. The fundamentalist government destroyed TV sets across the country in the 1990s and radio stations could only air religious programs and political rhetoric flowing from the capital.

When the Taliban fell after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, though, media flourished, as people saw the country as a vessel of economic opportunity. At first, much of the media development came courtesy of international support, Mosheni says.

“In the early years, for example, a very large chunk of the advertising money was related to international funding or donor funding,” Mohseni says. “The general economy has picked up to the point that the likes of Coke and Nestle … are heavy advertisers.”

But while multinational corporations got the gears turning in Afghanistan’s growing media industry, the country’s citizens quickly began to take hold of the revenue generated by the industry. Mosheni himself founded the company in 2002, after he returned to Afghanistan.

Due to the influence of people like Mosheni, the country has become much more media savvy. Afghanistan’s population stands at about 30 million people, and there are now over 6 million internet users. That number, Mohseni says, could double or even triple in the next few years, thanks in part to the country’s young population, which has adopted new technology rapidly.

“People are just accessing Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter using mobile devices,” Mosheni says. “We’re leapfrogging what [the U.S.] went through in terms of infrastructure.”

Of Afghanistan’s 6 million internet users, around 60 percent access the internet through a mobile device. And while the need for news is what initially drove consumption of media in the country, more Afghans are now also looking to media for its added benefits.

“They want to be entertained, they want to see their friends, they want to have fun, they want to play sports,” says Mohseni.

This media success does not just stay at home, though. The Moby Group now also functions as a regional leader in media, operating in seven countries including Iran, according to Mosheni. The company now plans to build a large media center in Kabul, a sign of their success.

But Mosheni recognizes that Afghanistan’s media industry could eventually reach some limits.

“We cannot ignore the fact that the general economy has been bolstered by the international presence in the country, so we have to be very careful not to assume that the economy’s going to be okay,” Mohseni says. “The growth year-on-year is going to slow.”

Beyond the eventual pull-out of international support, the country’s economy also continues to be challenged by the vast drug industry. Afghanistan is one of the largest producers in the world of poppy, used to create heroin and other opiates.

“I think at some stage we have to get a lot more serious with drugs. And we may have to have some radical ideas in terms of exports, whether its marijuana or opiates,” Mohseni says.

Even with these challenges though, Mohseni remains optimistic, as many Afghans do, due to the promise seen in the country’s recent elections.

“If you look at the candidates, what’s impressive about these people is that they’re probably better educated than all the other leaders in the region,” Mohseni says. “We have these transitions – this is the first one, but it’s going to be the single most important one. It’s going to shape the way the country’s going to look like in the next five years.”

See Also: Afghans Look for Way Forward After First Free Election